Photo Credit: Piron Guillaume, Unsplash.com

When my kids were little, I always thought that showing emotion was bad. I thought it would burden my kids with unnecessary worries about me and my well being.

So I kept the emotional outbursts within my bedroom walls. Admittedly, there were times I had some undeniable tears running down my face in front of my kids after my divorce. They would ask me what was wrong and I would tell them a sentence or two and ask if I could hug them. I would say that I was a little sad, but that I’d be better soon.

My son later told me that, “Yeah, sometimes you’re sad mom, but you always get better again.”

I showed my kids (and still do), that people get sad, then happy again, and life continues.

What I later realized is that how I was coping, my kids were learning as acceptable behavior. They learned to cry and be sad and that no explanations were needed.

But they also learned to cope really well and that angry outbursts were not okay. Sometimes I wish I’d have taught them to express anger productively and with purpose, without disrespecting others instead of rationalizing it away and redirecting all of it with reasoning.

This brings me to my first point:

How you allow yourself to behave is what your kids will learn is acceptable.

If you save all your emotional outbursts for the bedroom, your kids will learn that having all those “bad” emotions is not appropriate. And they’ll grow up having a hard time acknowledging those feelings in themselves. This, in turn, will give those “bad” feelings more control over their lives, since all feelings tend to make their way to the surface knowingly or unknowingly. Once we acknowledge them, they lose their power.

Once I realized that I needed to teach my kids to acknowledge a bigger range of feelings, I started having Tuesday family meetings around the dinner table.

My therapist had given me a paper with words on all possible emotions. We each picked three emotions we had that day. In the beginning, I never had my kids explain their feelings, but later it was more or less required. The arrangement gave my kids a time to feel heard and a time to acknowledge their feelings and having them validated. It also gave me an opportunity to be a role model for self-awareness and of acknowledging and accepting all my own feelings with my kids watching.

Emotion Coaching

In his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman states,

“We have inherited a tradition of discounting children’s feelings simply because children are smaller, less rational, less experienced and less powerful that the adults around them. Taking children’s emotions seriously requires empathy, keen listening skills, and a willingness to see things from their perspective. It also takes a certain selflessness.”

To sum it up, you have to become an emotion coach.

Emotion coach parents serve as their children’s guides through the world of emotion. They not only set limits to inappropriate behavior, but go beyond to teach their children how to regulate their feelings, find appropriate outlets, and solve problems. The don’t feel compelled to fix everything that goes awry in their kids’ lives and they consistently respond to their children’s feelings while the intensity level is still low. Emotion coach parents also don’t disapprove of their children’s emotions, thereby creating fewer points of conflict.

These strategies, in turn, strengthen the emotional bond between child and parent. Studies have shown that emotion-coached children do better academically, they’re healthier, and have better peer relationships. They have fewer behavioral problems and are better prepared to handle risks and challenges that lie ahead because they have learned to self-soothe.

Since you might be thinking, “Enough already! Just tell me how to emotion coach!”

In his book, John Gottman gives us Five Steps to Emotion Coaching:

Being aware of your child’s emotions requires that you must first be aware of the emotions within yourself. Recognize when you’re feeling an emotion, identify the feeling, and be sensitive to the presence of emotions in others and your child. The best way’s to not judge any feelings as good or bad.

Recognizing emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching means sitting down with your child when they’re emotional, which will rarely be on your schedule. You have to make it an intentional and important task. It’ll not only make your child feel heard and important, but by addressing the feeling before it escalates, you can help your child problem solve while the stakes are still small.

Listening empathetically and validating your child’s feelings is about accepting the feelings, validating the difficulty in having the feeling, and listening without applying our agenda to the situation. The beauty of validation is that once you give the feeling the attention it needs, it loses its power and your child can move on to the problem-solving much easier.

Helping your child verbally label emotions can help transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of everyday life. Labeling takes away the power of the feeling and is soothing for the nervous system. When helping your child label his or her emotions, keep in mind to normalize having many different conflicting emotions at the same time.

Setting limits while helping the child problem-solve can look something like this:

  1. Set limits
  2. Help your child identify goals
  3. Help your child think of possible solutions
  4. Evaluate proposed solutions based on your family’s values
  5. Help your child choose a solution

It’s important in this process for your children to understand that their feelings are not the problem, their misbehavior is.

Photo Credit: Piron Guillaume, Unsplash.com